ROGER FROST: How the Census can help local historians

Lane Bottom, Briercliffe.
Lane Bottom, Briercliffe.
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With this article you will notice a change in the format of my column. I will continue to write a substantial article on an aspect of our town’s local history but have added other features which I hope readers will enjoy.

I would like Peek into the Past to be more interactive. A number of you have contacted me already – including a reader from New Zealand last week – and I regularly get letters, emails and phone calls which comment on, and ask questions, about my articles.

Please continue to contact me.

Hapton Tower

This once important building – the preferred home of the Towneleys in the later Middle Ages – but now a ruin high above Hapton has been in the news recently. An application to extend a wind farm, if granted without appropriate conditions, might have put the site of Hapton Tower, which has never been properly surveyed or excavated, in jeopardy. Concerns expressed by Hapton and Padiham councillors, who worked with me, have resulted in an agreement with the developers that the site of the tower will be protected during building work. Also an archaeological report on the site is to be published.

It is not expected construction work will start for more than a year but something very useful will come out of it. Historians have been puzzled by Hapton Tower for years. No one knows just how large it was or how it looked and, given its location, some wonder why the family preferred this building to Towneley Hall. I want the site to be listed and Burnley Civic Trust will consider this soon.

The Big Census

In Britain, for more than 200 years, every year ending in a 1, except for 1941, has been a census year. Many think censuses have become far too probing. But ask a local or family historian what they think about censuses and the answer will be very different. Some would tell you that to have such information for the years before 1801, when the first modern British census was compiled, would have been more than useful. There had been censuses before 1801 – Joseph and Mary, in travelling to Bethlehem, were participating in Tiberius’s Census when Jesus came into the world. In England, there was a great census in 1086.

The Domesday Book, an attempt by William the Conqueror to assess the wealth and population of his kingdom, was the outcome and its very purposes have given censuses a bad name since. In fact the name by which the book became known confirms this as the Saxons, who had been defeated by William at Hastings in 1066, thought the information collected in the book would presage the end of their world.

Types of censuses were compiled after the Domesday Book. Perhaps the most useful are the Poll Tax Returns of 1660, the year in which Charles II was restored to the throne. One of his first priorities was to pay off what remained of Cromwell’s Army and, to do this, because of the state of royal finances, he had to raise a tax. The surviving records are not as comprehensive as later censuses but they are very useful.

So what about our modern censuses and why did the Government in 1801 think such an exercise was necessary? Three years before Thomas Malthus, one of the pioneers of modern economics, predicted the growth in population – without what he saw as the tradition means of controlling population: war, famine and pestilence – would eventually outstrip the ability of the nation to feed itself.

This was a potential crisis the Government, at this time not at all interventionist, could not afford to ignore. It wanted to know how many people there were in Britain, how fast the population was growing and whether it was moving to different parts of the country. Unfortunately, only the bare statistics of the first three censuses have survived but, from 1841, the actual hand-written returns are available for historians to use. Their survival, originally at Chancery Lane in London where I first consulted census material, has lead in part to a relatively new field of study – demography, the study of population. What do the censuses from 1841 reveal? They tell us who and how many people lived in all of the houses, however small or poor, in the country. Addresses, full names, ages, jobs, relationships within a household and where individuals were born are all listed. Later, figures about employment and state of health are included.

Information like this is very useful to the thousands of people undertaking work into their family histories but the information still remains valid for demographers who are at work on present day problems.

A chance discovery

A FEW weeks ago a local builder contacted me about a chance discovery he had made. He was restoring one of the cottages on the Cop Row, between the Craven Heifer and the Commercial in Briercliffe Road. The name is confusing as there is more than one row of cottages between these two pubs, and there always has been, but there are more rows now than there used to be.

This latter is something I have written about before but what was the discovery? It was of a disused and stoned-up doorway at first floor level in the gable end of the cottage. If you have the opportunity, visit the row above the Craven and you will notice the outline of an old doorway which, surprisingly at first, is not where doors ought to be i.e. ground floor level.

There must have been, in the past, some means of accessing the door and similarly there must be an explanation for its unusual location. The former is explained by the fact that, once upon a time, there would have been a stone staircase outside the building which allowed access to the door but why go to all this trouble?

People don’t do things without good reason and the good reason, in this instance, is that the cottages were not only designed to live in but work in. The workers were weavers whose handlooms were operated in the first floor rooms of their tiny cottages. It was necessary to get large parts of machines in and out of these properties and imagine the difficulty of negotiating their very narrow stairways.

An outside staircase topped by a large door was the answer and this is now plainly visible. The builder has told me he intends to make a feature of the door but he wanted to know what it was for and when it might have been built. Without the deeds to the cottage I cannot be precise about the latter but it is known these cottages are 200 years old and were built during the handloom weaving era.

What the discovery does not show is that it is more than probable this door did not only serve the one cottage. I suspect that doors in each of the cottages gave access to all of their neighbours in the row.

This chance discovery reminds us of the days when the home-based or domestic textile was really important in our part of the world. The Cop Row door was one of many in our area some of which have been lost during rebuilding but others will be hidden behind later render.

The picture above shows the cottages at Higher Buildings in Lane Bottom. You can see a door at first floor level in this property. I have not, as yet, got permission from the builder to photograph the new discovery but if, and when I do, I will publish it in this column.